What ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ did for Kirsten Gillibrand

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Kirsten Gillibrand speaks. (EMILY's List, via flickr)
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Almost as soon as the Senate voted on Saturday to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Kirsten Gillibrand dashed off an email to her supporters that made it clear where she felt the credit belonged.

“It's been a long, hard road,” New York’s junior senator wrote, “and I couldn't have done it without your support.”

The reality is that repeal of the 16-year-old policy probably would been achieved with or without Gillibrand in the Senate. The issue was too important to too much of the Democratic base for Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders to ignore it these past two years, and when it came to winning over crucial moderate Republicans (and keeping conservative Democrats in line) in the Senate, it was Obama’s patient strategy—refusing to rush repeal and giving military leaders time to prepare an exhaustive, definitive report that eviscerated every conceivable argument against it—that made the biggest difference.

Still, it is worth recognizing the 18-month campaign that Gillibrand waged to end DADT. She helped publicize the plight of Lt. Dan Choi, the West Point graduate who was discharged from the Army for acknowledging that he is gay; pushed for Senate hearings on DADT repeal (none had been held since the policy was implemented in 1994); and made the case against the policy in numerous media appearances. Gillibrand worked this issue much harder than most of her colleagues and all of her efforts helped ensure Saturday’s result.

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It’s also worth considering Gillibrand’s DADT campaign in the context of her recent political career. You probably don’t have to strain to remember the predicament she faced when David Paterson chose her for the Senate back in January 2009. Elected to her second term in the House just months earlier, Gillibrand was unknown to most voters. And among liberal activists, interest groups and commentators—the people and organizations whose opinions would help shape the Democratic electorate’s view of their new senator—there was deep suspicion.

Gillibrand, after all, had earned her House seat in the traditionally conservative-voting 20th District by taking pains to distance herself culturally from her party’s liberal establishment. In 2007 and 2008, there were no campaigns from Congresswoman Gillibrand on DADT, or on any gay issues, or on any cultural issues of significance to Democratic interest groups. She didn’t sign on to a (futile) effort in the House to repeal DADT, broadly endorsed the right of gay couples to enter into civil unions while making it clear that she wanted the issue of marriage left to the states, and voted against giving non-citizen gay partners of U.S. citizens the same immigration status as non-citizen straight partners. All of this earned her the lowest score of any New York House Democrat from the Human Rights Campaign, the country's most influential gay rights organization.

There was also, at the time of her appointment, concern in the party about Gillibrand’s views on gun control and immigration.

And the appointment itself had been a mess, with Paterson’s team making a hash of the process, finding ways to anger  all the other prospective appointees in the state's congressional delegation and smearing Caroline Kennedy in the press. Immediately, Carolyn McCarthy, a gun control crusader, announced that she’d run against Gillibrand in the 2010 primary, if no one else did. Carolyn Maloney, Steve Israel, and Scott Stringer all began flirting with campaigns of their own. Early polling suggested a Gillibrand challenger would have plenty of room to maneuver, and a competitive Democratic race in 2010 seemed likely, if not certain.

It was in this climate that Gillibrand threw herself into the DADT fight. It is impossible to overstate how perfectly the issue addressed all of her political imperatives. Since her appointment, Gillibrand had been pleading with gay-rights leaders to consider her an ally; this was her chance to prove that she really was. It also promised to boost her overall image with liberal primary voters and her reputation with high-end Democratic donors around New York City, among whom DADT repeal, and gay rights in general, was particularly important. Plus, with Democrats running the White House and Congress for the first time since ’94, the stakes were real; this wouldn’t be an exercise in symbolism. There was also minimal chance of general-election blowback, with swing voters, especially in blue states like New York, increasingly ready for DADT to go.

It's probably a stretch to say that Gillibrand's advocacy of DADT was crucial to her survival in 2010. She did, after all, have some powerful assistance from both the White House and Chuck Schumer, especially in those early months of ’09, when there were plenty of ambitious Democrats looking for an excuse to take her on. And it’s not like DADT was the only issue she used to prove her liberal chops.

But after two years in the Senate, DADT has become Gillibrand’s signature issue. Job security may have been her primary motive, but the repeal fight also helped Gillibrand establish her own political identity in the Senate and with New Yorkers, and to develop her own voice.

In a few weeks, not quite two years after her appointment, Gillibrand will be sworn in as an elected senator.* The circumstances will be much different this time from when she first entered the Senate. She avoided a primary challenge this year and crushed her overmatched Republican foe in November with 62 percent of the vote, even though the atmosphere was poisoned against Democrats. (In a similar climate in 1994, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was held to 54 percent by an equally overmatched Republican, Bernadette Castro.) No longer will she spend every day panicked that a serious primary challenger might emerge; no longer will she be quite so dependent on Schumer. Politics is an unpredictable business, but Gillibrand’s Senate tenure is now shaping up to be a long one. And for the first time, she now has a chance to think beyond her own immediate political survival.

In this sense, the most noteworthy vote Gillibrand cast in the last week wasn’t the one for DADT repeal. It was the one against President Obama’s tax-cut deal. That vote put her at odds with Schumer, who had counseled Obama against the deal but stayed loyal to the president once the deal was cut. Breaking with Schumer like this to goose her growing support among the Democractic base has not been in the Gillibrand playbook these past two years. But now, maybe, she gets to play a different game.

*Corrected from the original, which stated that Gillibrand would be serving her first full term starting next year. It will be a two-year term.